Fearing the armed men might return, I spent a restless night on the floor of Antioch Baptist church,while my exhausted co-workers slept and our leader, Major Johns, kept watch over us. He asked us to clean up before the deacons arrived to prepare for morning services. I splashed cold water on my face and ran a comb through my straight hair, and pressed my hot hands over my wrinkled dress before joining others on the steps to greet incoming parishoners.
“I couldn’t help but look around the sanctuary, hoping I wasn’t staring rudely. The church people were all Black, which was unfamiliar to me. Some of the adults smiled and welcomed us, some looked away, some looked anxious. The ladies fanned themselves with paper fans from Brownlee’s Funeral Parlor with bible verses printed on one side. I’m sure Rev. Freeman gave a wonderful sermon, but I could scarcely keep my eyes open in the hot humid sanctuary where I had spent a sleepless night. Kids were all over us before and after services. “Where ya’ll from? Do you know Dr. King? Why is your hair like that [straight]? Are you comin’ to our house?”
“Yes, Dr. King sent me. That’s right, I hope to visit your family. Are your parents registered?” I tried to remember what we’d been told to say, but when it came to my hair, I just offered, “Would you like to touch it?” Two little girls stroked my long, straight brown hair, and one said, “Oooh it’s soft!” I had read about the study that was used in Brown v. Board of Education in which the black children preferred white dolls to ones that looked like them, so I quickly and sincerely said, “Well, I like yours more. It keeps its shape better in this heat.” Excerpt from Chapter 4 “This Bright Light of Ours” www.thisbrightlightofours.com
I tried to practice what we had learned at the SCLC SCOPE Orientation in Atlanta a week earlier. Our mission was to assist the African American community with voter registration and to demonstrate that our belief in equality. At first, variations of the local dialect made it difficult for me to understand everything the local adults and children said, but smiles and hugs were a universal language – especially with the children – and they helped me catch on.